I recently read a book titled “African Friends and Money Matters”, written by an American anthropologist living in Africa, David Maranz. It talks mainly about the authors observations regarding African cultural traditions and money. It was a captivating read, especially because I could nod my head and laugh at most every observation the author made. I want to share a few fun observations that I have made about Mozambican culture and how they view and use money and other resources. My observations here will be brief, and are not at all comprehensive, as an entire book could be, and was dedicated to this subject matter.
Before I get into the meat of this post, I want to make a disclaimer. I am going to make rash generalizations and judgments based on observations made while living here in Manjacaze. These are simply my observations of phenomena, I am not judging the individuals who act, I am judging the cultural conditioning behind these acts. I fully acknowledge that I am judging them from my conditioned and biased western perspective, and my judgments are not meant to be malicious. There are obviously exceptions to every generalization that I am going to make, but I am not going to repeat that all the time. Saying it here is sufficient. This post has nothing to do with race, gender, social class, or any other means of classifying people, only culture. African cultural habits related to resources, as being judged from a western perspective to be exact. Take into account my context as well; Manjacaze is a fairly rural community with many uneducated people who have had very little exposure to life outside of Mozambique. Life in urban Mozambique is much different from the type of lifestyle in the rural zones. I accept full responsibility for my own interpretations of my observations and in no case do I claim to be correct. These are simply observations, and many of them are quite funny. In no particular order of importance:
1# Mozambicans are incredibly hospitable to guests, even if they don’t have many resources.
At the normal mealtimes, I can pass houses with people sitting outside eating and always receive an invitation to come eat. If I happen to be visiting someone around a meal time the will ALWAYS offer me food. This is not just for me either; everyone who is present is expected to eat with the hosts. Contrast this with western culture where even unexpected visits are usually unwelcomed! To get offered a meal as well would be a very rare occurrence. Westerners just don’t share food like people do here. Not only is it normal to share with visitors, but guests are usually always served first, and are expected to eat as much as they want before anyone else is served. I have eaten many an awkward meal sitting around a table, everyone staring at me while I eat alone, waiting for me to take a second helping which is the o.k. for them to serve. This doesn’t happen for me with friends as our relationships are much more casual, but as a formal visitor in a home for the first time this is usually the rule.
#2 It is perfectly acceptable to ask people for fruits or vegetables from their gardens.
This observation is one of my favorites! Neighbors are constantly sharing between themselves the local fruits and produce. I can walk around any neighborhood, see a nice papaya and ask the owner for that fruit. It’s the same for me though, people constantly come ask me for the stuff growing in my yard (or they steal it!). It is also perfectly acceptable to deny people when they ask. Last year I planted tons of beans and pumpkins and literally had a revolving wheel of women coming to my house to ask for the beans and pumpkin leaves. I said sure, you just have to invite me over when you cook it! I made a lot of friends this way and planted even more this year.
#3 Mozambicans rarely keep a lot of food in their homes (accept for bulk dry goods).
When they want to cook something they usually go to the market and buy the ingredients fresh, including fruits and snacks. Even people who have means of refrigeration and plenty of money to buy food seem to prefer to not store things at home. Contrast this with the average American home, where the pantry and fridge is usually pretty well stocked. I have asked several people about this observation and the reply was more or less the same, that if there was a lot of food at home, it would be eaten very quickly. It seems that self-control around an abundance of food is difficult. I have been to parties with buffets and watched people absolutely gorge themselves, serving mountainous plates of food and repeating several times. I have gotten to be good friends with my neighbors, two boys, ages 16 and 19. One day they had a box of probably 50 ripe bananas that they had freshly harvested from their garden. I left them sitting with the bananas in the morning and returned two hours later to find them still sitting there, but the bananas mysteriously gone. I asked them about it and they started giggling. “We finished them Brother Evan!” they proudly proclaimed. My jaw dropped when I saw the pile of banana peels sitting next to the box. I of course asked them why they would eat all those bananas in one sitting. They said that the bananas were there, they were hungry, and if anyone else arrived at their home they would be forced out of hospitality to give them bananas, and so they decided to just eat them all. I don’t even think they got diarrhea or suffered any sort of bodily discomfort, which is more shocking considering what would happen to me if I ate 25 bananas in one sitting! Sometimes this unbridled gluttony is contagious as well. Mango season is officially here, and just yesterday my neighbors invited me over to eat some mangos. So we climbed up into their 50 foot tall mango tree and we swung from branch to branch, eating as many mangos as we wanted; which for my neighbors was a substantial quantity! I capped myself at a very modest 6 mangos. It seems that when there is a lot of food available, you eat it. Simple as that.
As a side note to the mango picking, if you read #22 the ripped pants story, you know that I ripped my pants dancing at a party. Coming down from the mango tree I ripped my pants again (the same ones), upping the total number of villagers who have seen my ass (although some were repeat customers). I even heard one little girl say to her friend in Changana how white it was.
#4 Asking for your things is a way of complimenting your taste in clothing, accessories etc.
This observation used to really bother me. All the time random strangers in the street would come up to me and ask me for my shirt, my watch, my sunglasses, my backpack, and tons of women constantly ask me for my hair (to make extensions). I used to get angry, annoyed and offended. I thought “you mean you want me to take off my shirt here in the street and just hand it over to you, just because you like it?!” It is such a foreign concept for us westerners. But then one day a Mozambican friend and I were out walking together in town when someone asked for something. I started to complain to him, and seeing my frustration, he told me that when someone asks for something they don’t actually expect me to give it to them, but instead are complimenting me and letting me know they like my style. I did some more research and got the same explanation from several other people. Even though they know I probably won’t give them whatever it is they are asking for, people probably think that they have nothing to lose from asking, and they are complimenting me in the process.
#5 Prices for goods in the market are often based on what people think you can pay, and my relationship to the seller changes the price.
When I first arrived in Manjacaze, being a white man, I was initially perceived as being wealthy. And let’s face it, in comparison to the majority of people here, even with my meager peace corps monthly allowance, I am quite wealthy. I will never go to the market and not be able to buy what I want for lack of money, which for many people is the reality. So at first, the market ladies quoted me ridiculous prices for vegetables and fruits, which upon fact checking I refused to pay. Now I get the normal prices, as I explained to them my financial situation. I have seen Mozambicans pay 50% higher prices than what I pay for produce. I asked the ladies about this after the buyer left and they said, “oh that guy has a car, he can afford it”. Interestingly enough, the man did not protest at all the higher prices, which he had to have known he was getting ripped off, but instead seemed proud to pay, like it was his civic duty to indulge the market ladies trying to make a bigger profit from him.
In another observation, I have noticed that for some things, as a relationship develops the prices for services or goods tend to rise! I have a woman in the community who washes my clothing every 2 weeks for approximately $4 USD. When I first hired her I was paying $1.75. Over the course of the past year the price has been consistently rising, even though the quantity of clothing has stayed the same! She did it very subtly too, one time complaining that the clothing was extra dirty, which raised the price to a new standard of $2. Then there was extra clothing one time, which raised it to $2.50 etc… I noticed this constant increase and asked my woman. She said, well we know each other better now, we are good friends and so we can help each other out more. She also added how filthy I am and how much work I give her, just for kicks I think. She knows that I can afford it, and actually I am happy to pay her more as I do like her, but the reverse friend discount is definitely novel for me.
Also, buying in bulk here does not always result in greater discounts. At the market here in Manjacaze, often times I can buy a group of 6 bananas for 10 meticais (30 cents), or group of 10 bananas for 20 meticais. I have explained to the women over and over that this does not make sense. I buy two groups of 6 bananas at 10 meticais each and show them how I just bought 12 bananas for 20 meticais. They laugh, tell me how smart I am, and then go back to selling their bananas at the previous prices. Whatever dude!
#6 People often show up to work totally unprepared
I ran out of patches for my bike tubes and so I went to the local bike inner tube fixing man with a few bike tubes I wanted patched. I chatted with him for a minute, and then handed over the tubes, which he happily assured me he could fix. I asked him if he was absolutely sure he was capable of fixing the tubes. He assured me that he was. I told him that I would be back in 2 hours and as he wasn’t working on anything else at the time, he said no problem. As I turned to leave I noticed something quite peculiar about this man’s work space. There were no tools. No pump, no tire levers, no wrenches, nothing! I went back to where he was sitting in the shade and asked him if he had a pump. He said no. I asked him if he had patches and glue. He said no. I stared at him absolutely incredulously, “how the hell are you going to fix my tubes without these tools?” He said he was going to go see if his friend had any of the required materials. This man fixes bikes for a living! And he didn’t have patches, glue, or a pump! Instead of telling me this up front, that he couldn’t fix my bike, he was going to let me leave the tubes there thinking they were being fixed while he conjured up some miracle tools to work with, or waited for the tools to fall out of the sky. This is one of those situations where living in Mozambique requires a sense of humor. All I could do was chuckle to myself as I gathered up my bike tubes, gave the man some strong words of encouragement about successful business practices, and went to the other bike tube fixing man, who did an awesome job and was totally prepared with the necessary tools (believe me I checked!).
I have been on public transportation mini buses that don’t carry spare tires. I waited on the side of the road for 3 hours one time on my way to Maputo because the minibus I was in got a flat tire and didn’t carry a spare. Your job is to transport paying customers, and you show up unprepared for even the simplest of mechanical failures. The worst part is that the paying customers in the taxi never say a word of protest. They just sit passively, not knowing what is going on, nor taking any steps to correct the situation. Meanwhile I am flying around furiously, talking to the driver, arranging a spare tire to brought, organizing the tools, putting the tire on and getting back on the road! Something like this would never fly in the United States. This leads me to my next observation.
#7 People do not maintain their material possessions in good working order
This observation has really shocked me, as most people are quite materially impoverished by western standards so you would think they would really value and maintain what they have. I have seen the rare and valuable soccer balls that are left baking in the sun, bikes left outside to rust in the rain, cars that get their oil changed every 10 thousand miles (maybe), tires that are worn to the bare tread, tools left scattered around the work site etc… Government initiatives to distribute industrial agriculture equipment such as tractors and irrigation systems have failed miserably here in Mozambique. The equipment is used for the first season, not well maintained, something breaks, there are no material or intellectual resources to make the repairs and the machinery is left to rust in machine graveyards. I have seen tons of 1960’s era Soviet agriculture machinery rotting in fields and pastures all over Gaza and Maputo province. My colleague installed a rope-and-washer pump on the well at his house that his neighbors used to get water. The pump saved them tons of time as previously they were just fetching water with a rope and bucket. One day the pump broke, which was a very simple problem that could easily be fixed. Did anyone of the community who was using the pump fix it? No, they went back the next day with their buckets and ropes, like the pump had never even existed, and had my colleague not fixed the pump, it probably would have been disassembled and burned as firewood.
#8 This is not a culture of saving in terms of economic resources and when resources are available, the highest need takes priority, regardless of the stated intention (in relation to loans)
I know of an organization that lent money to a pastor in a rural community to buy cashews from the community members for sale in foreign markets. The pastor was loaned the money to buy hundreds of kilograms. He bought 20 kilograms, and then spent the rest of the money on his wedding, which consisted of food, beverages, ceremonies and gifts for all the participants. The wedding was his priority and he did not value his commitment to the loan as overriding his most pressing economic need.
Another pastor was asking for help writing a grant. Supposedly the grant was from some NGO to do some generic community development activity that I cannot remember. My colleague offered to help. After finding some serious problems with the implementation of the project as it was written in the proposal, the pastor came out and said that while he was writing the grant for the NGO project, he was actually going to use the money to start a band. My colleague withdrew his offer to help.
Many people here build their houses piece-meal as they earn money. Everywhere you go you see half constructed buildings and bare foundations, where people are slowly constructing their houses when money is available. Money comes in and is immediately allocated to the most pressing need to be spent. Out of my own curiosity I sometimes do not ask my friends about their financial status, to which most people admit to not having bank accounts, nor do they see the need to have one. I think this has a lot to do with the lack of available credit from banks and lending institutions and distrust for institutions. There is no bank insurance here, and you could very easily lose everything if the bank you have invested in folds.
We had a temporary 19 year old kid doing manual labor type work here in Manjacaze for my association. He was paid after working for a month on a Friday afternoon. He was supposed to show up for work on Sunday morning, as he was going to be doing maintenance type work in the garden. He never showed up. He never showed up on Monday morning either. I asked my colleagues where this dude was and they gave me the story. Apparently before even making it home from work on Friday afternoon he had spent ¾ of his salary on alcohol and meat. Which he then brought to the local neighborhood bar, got absolutely plastered, to the point where he was unconscious and all his “friends” ate his meat and drank the rest of his beer. He then spent the rest of his money on Saturday doing more or less the same thing and therefore was too hung over to come in to work on Sunday morning. He was fired. I grew up with the conditioning that “a penny saved is a penny earned”, and always had a bank account where I could save my money. Frugality with money is culturally valued, and I think westerners tend to frown upon financial irresponsibility. Obviously it still occurs, but on a whole we value economizing and thriftfulness. This does not appear to be the case here.
So before this post becomes a book I am going to cut it off. I feel that I could add many more observations on these themes. I have a few interesting theories for why things are the way that they are, culturally speaking, but I will write those in another post, as this is already long. Westerners don’t have long attention spans anymore. Time is money baby.
Photos: KITE!!!! Ugly crying baby and work related photo